GREEN BAY, Wis. – With upheaval at receiver, the Green Bay Packers might lean more on running backs Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon this season by putting them on the field together more often.
Asked about the possibility, Dillon said: “I can’t give you the secret sauce here, but the theory that you just brought up is very intriguing to me. I would love to see that. That’s my guy and so we’ll make it happen.”
The Packers are blessed to have one of the best one-two punches in the NFL. Last season, 24 running backs rushed for at least 750 yards. Dillon and Jones and Denver’s Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams were the only set of teammates. Also, 25 running backs had at least 1,000 yards from scrimmage. Jones-Dillon, Gordon-Williams and Dallas’ Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard were the only tandems.
“Their relationship, so I think they feed off each other pretty well,” running backs coach Ben Sirmans said. “It’s kind of a luxury because you can keep them both fresh throughout the game and then toward the end, you can either throw A.J. in there to pound and wear the defense down, or put Aaron in and, all of a sudden, the defense is worn down and it’s an explosive play. Having a blend of both those guys, that will continue throughout this upcoming season.”
With Jones missing some time, Dillon led the team with 803 rushing yards and averaged 4.3 yards per carry. En route to his third consecutive season of 1,000 total yards, Jones was right on Dillon’s heels with 799 rushing yards and a 4.7-yard average.
Last season, 36 running backs had at least 136 rushing attempts (eight per game). Despite their obviously different skill-sets and running styles, they tied for eighth with 3.18 yards after contract per carry, according to Pro Football Focus.
In the 2017 draft, Jones was the 19th running back selected. With 4,163 rushing yards, he trails only Dalvin Cook (4,820), Joe Mixon (4,564) and Alvin Kamara (4,238) and is ahead of the draft’s two first-rounders, Leonard Fournette (3,810) and Christian McCaffrey (3,587). Of the 30 running backs selected, he’s fifth with 183 receptions and seventh with 1,448 receiving yards.
While it’s possible this year will be his last with the Packers – his cap charge explodes to $20 million next season – Jones has cemented himself as one of the great players in franchise history. He ranks fifth in franchise history in rushing yards. He could pass Hall of Famer Tony Canadeo (4,197) and move into fourth place in Week 1, and John Brockington’s third-place mark of 5,024 rushing yards is just 861 yards out of his reach.
Jones isn’t just great by Packers standards. Jones and two NFL legends, Hall of Famers Jim Brown of Cleveland and Jim Taylor of Green Bay, are the only players in NFL history with at least 4,000 rushing yards, 40-plus rushing touchdowns and a 5.0-yard average in their first five seasons.
According to Stathead, Jones’ career average of 5.06 yards per carry is the sixth-best in NFL history among running backs with at least 800 carries. Jones’ name is sandwiched between five Hall of Famers – Marion Motley is first and Brown is fourth; Gales Sayers is seventh, Barry Sanders is eighth and Joe Perry is ninth.
For all the power in those bulging quads, Dillon needs to get more explosive to become the next great back. Last year, Dillon had 18 more carries than Jones but seven fewer 10-yard runs. In fact, Dillon’s nine runs of 10-plus yards were the fewest of those aforementioned 36 backs with 136 carries. His 10-yard run rate of 4.8 percent was also the worst, well behind Miami’s Myles Gaskin (6.9 percent).
“He’s got that type of ability,” Sirmans said, “because he can actually make you miss in the open field. He’s got the ability to put a little juke on you, even for a guy his size, so it’s really just bringing all those different facets of his game, just bringing those attributes together and let him apply them. I think he will have more explosive runs this year.”
However, Dillon’s ability to seemingly get 4 and 5 yards on every run was a tremendous asset. He was No. 1 in the NFL in Pro Football Outsiders’ Success Rate, a metric that mirrors Green Bay’s win-loss grading system.
Plus, his hands were quite a revelation. After catching only 21 passes in three seasons at Boston College, Dillon caught 34 last year. Of 40 running backs to be targeted at least 30 times in the passing game, Dillon’s 91.9 percent catch rate ranked third and his 9.2 yards after the catch per catch ranked eighth, according to PFF. He had just one drop.
“It’s definitely something I’m still trying to work on,” Dillon said. “Coming in, I was always the big back who’s only good for third-and-short, so I really want to be and I think of myself as an APB, an all-purpose back, no matter what the situation and I feel like last year was a good start, a good foothold if you will, but there’s still a couple opportunities I wish I had caught the ball and been in better placement or ran a route better. So, I’m happy with the improvement but obviously still working on it.”
Top Running Back Tandems
No. 10: Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine, Cincinnati Bengals
Mixon finished fourth in the NFL with 1,519 yards from scrimmage and 16 total touchdowns. He’s topped 1,100 rushing yards three of the past four seasons. Combined, Mixon and Perine finished with 1,961 total yards, 69 receptions and 18 total touchdowns. Mixon’s brilliance and their combined pass-catching ability gives them the edge over the other consideration here, New England’s Damien Harris (1,061 scrimmage yards) and Rhamondre Stevenson (729 scrimmage yards).
No. 9: Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic, Washington Commanders
Gibson rushed for 1,037 yards and added 42 receptions. McKissic isn’t much of a runner but he had 80 receptions in 2020 and 43 more in just 11 games last season. In 2021, they combined for 1,940 total yards, 85 receptions and 14 touchdowns. Gibson is dinged by his league-worst six fumbles.
No. 8: James Conner and Darrel Williams, Arizona Cardinals
Conner has gone from feel-good story as cancer survivor to an established standout. Last season, he tallied 1,127 scrimmage yards and 18 total touchdowns. With the Chiefs, Williams added 1,010 scrimmage yards and eight touchdowns. That’s 2,237 total yards, 86 receptions and 26 touchdowns. Of note, Conner caught 37-of-39 targets and finished second among backs with 10.1 yards per reception. Williams finished third with 9.6 yards per reception.
No. 7: Ezekiel Elliott and Tony Pollard, Dallas Cowboys
Elliott might not the dominant back of yesteryear but he still had 1,006 rushing yards and 1,289 yards from scrimmage. Explosive Tony Pollard, who finished fifth in yards after contact per carry, according to Pro Football Focus, added 1,056 yards from scrimmage to give them a total of 2,345 total yards, 86 receptions and 15 touchdowns.
No. 6: Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines, Indianapolis Colts
With Taylor leading the NFL with 1,811 rushing yards and 2,171 total yards and Hines chipping in 40 receptions, Taylor and Hines combined for 2,757 scrimmage yards and 23 touchdowns. Taylor won the rushing title by an astounding 552 yards. With an impressive 40 receptions, he beat the runner-up, Harris, by 504 total yards while getting nine fewer touches. Taylor had 1,272 rushing yards after contact, according to PFF. That figure alone would have led the NFL in rushing.
No. 5: Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints
Kamara missed four games but finished with 898 rushing yards, 1,366 total yards and nine touchdowns. An elite receiver, he started his career with four consecutive seasons of 81 to 83 receptions before grabbing “only” 47 balls last year. With seven games apiece with Houston and New Orleans, the 32-year-old Ingram contributed 716 total yards and a pair of scores. That’s 2,082 total yards, 82 receptions and nine touchdowns.
No. 4: Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison, Minnesota Vikings
Even while missing four games, Cook finished fifth in rushing and sixth in total yards. He’s topped 1,100 rushing yards each of the last three seasons but had a career-worst 4.9 yards per touch last year. His 1,383 total yards and six touchdowns in 2021, combined with Mattison’s 719 total yards and four touchdowns, gave them 2,102 total yards, 66 receptions and 10 scores.
No. 3: Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon, Denver Broncos
Williams, a rookie last season, and Gordon, a veteran from Wisconsin, powered the offense. With both players topping 900 rushing yards, Williams had 1,219 yards from scrimmage and Gordon added 1,131. They combined 2,350 total yards, 71 receptions and 17 touchdowns but also five fumbles. Williams ranked No. 1 in broken tackles per rushing attempt, according to PFF The addition of quarterback Russell Wilson might mean fewer opportunities but fewer defensive eyes.
No. 2: Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon, Green Bay Packers
With 799 rushing yards, Jones fell short of his third consecutive 1,000-yard campaign but finished sixth among backs with 52 receptions. In Year 2, Dillon emerged with a team-leading 803 rushing yards and an impressive season as a receiver. Jones (1,190) and Dillon (1,116) combined for 2,306 total yards, 86 receptions and 17 touchdowns.
No. 1: Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, Cleveland Browns
Chubb is one of the great backs in the NFL. He rushed for 996 yards as a rookie, then topped 1,000 yards the past three seasons. His career average of 5.3 yards per carry ranks sixth in NFL history. Last season, he finished fifth with 1,433 total yards and was No. 2 among backs in yards after contact per carry. Former Pro Bowler Kareem Hunt added 560 total yards. Throw in D’Ernest Johnson’s 671 yards, this trio piled up a whopping 2,664 scrimmage yards, 61 receptions and 17 touchdowns.